Should I Lose My European Passport to Get an American One?
Lithuania, a EU country of 3 million citizens and 1 million people in diaspora, doesn’t allow dual citizenship unless you have a special case. This leaves Lithuanian-Americans with a tough decision: should they apply for an American passport and lose a Lithuanian passport in the process?
The referendum on the expansion of dual citizenship was held in Lithuania in 2019. 74% of the voters agreed to this idea but there weren’t enough of them to change the constitution.
There are initiatives to repeat the referendum again in 2024. I met with people from the Lithuanian community in New York who would benefit from this change. I wanted to hear their thoughts on the topics of citizenship and national identity in the city of migrants.
The following essays are compiled from the individual interviews, translated and edited for length and clarity.
Marius Vilemaitis, lead architect at Nasdaq. 13 years in the U.S. Lives in New Jersey and works in New York City.
“I’m not an economic migrant, I’m a professional migrant. I was working for the tech company in Lithuania and was doing well. But the challenges there were not as complicated as I wanted. Lithuanian tech companies at that time had maximum of 200 servers. In Nasdaq, we had thousands, last time we counted. Moving to the U.S. seemed like a natural next step for me to grow. My wife, who is a business consultant, joined me in this decision.
There are companies, especially connected with the government, that require you to be a citizen of the U.S. to work for them. Once I got an offer to join a very interesting project but I needed to turn it down because it was connected with a state secret. As a non-citizen you are not allowed to work with secret information.
I could apply for U.S. citizenship but that would mean losing my Lithuanian passport. I thought a lot about doing that. Only one argument wins over all the others – it’s an emotional connection with Lithuania. I still have it, even when both of my parents are no longer alive. I do philanthropic work in Lithuania – recently we raised money for education for children in Kybartai, the small town where I am from.
When you are from a small town, you want to move to bigger cities. When you leave your parents to study, they know that you are not coming back to live with them. But they still give you the key to their house. Imagine if they took that key away. You might as well not visit them in a long time – after all, you live in a big city! But when they take away the key, that changes things. You no longer feel that someone is waiting for you. That is how I think about the Lithuanian passport. If it’s taken from you, the connection is damaged.
One argument wins over all the others – it’s an emotional connection with Lithuania.
Our first son was born in Lithuania and two younger sons – in the U.S. We speak Lithuanian at our house. Our oldest started fencing and said that he wants to play for the Lithuanian national team. The youngest son once came back from school and showed me the Lithuanian flag that he drew in the class. They see themselves as Lithuanians even though they grew up in the U.S. When we all come to Lithuania, they feel there like locals. Allowing them to have both Lithuanian and American passports will keep this connection going once they grow older.
There is already a division of “us” and “them” inside Lithuanian society. It’s “us” who physically live in the country and “them” who are somewhere else. This barrier needs to be removed. Diaspora people are your country’s ambassadors. Lithuanian community in the U.S. is big, they have a lot of connections. They even influence politicians. Lithuanian independence was gained with the help of Lithuanian-Americans. When we don’t allow these people to save their citizenship, we close doors for a lot of opportunities.”
Simona Smirnova, singer and composer. 10 years in the United States. Lives in New York City.
“I have seven different kanklės (Lithuanian folk instrument, similar to a zither) in my apartment. When I was six, my parents took me to a music school. I wanted to play guitar but the teacher said that my hands were too small. I asked what else is there. She showed me kanklės and I loved how they sounded. I have been playing them since.
I grew up listening to Lithuanian folk songs, though I turned to punk rock as a teenager. We started a punk rock festival in Ignalina, the town I am from in Eastern Lithuania. Later I studied jazz vocal in the Lithuanian academy of music. But folk music has always been a part of me. For me folk songs are like avant-garde music.
I moved to Boston to study composition at Berklee College of Music. I became a part of the Lithuanian-American community. I started teaching music at the Lithuanian language school in Boston and continue doing that in New York. I play and sing in the Lithuanian church in Williamsburg. I would never want to lose Lithuanian citizenship. It’s non-negotiable for me. I know people who don’t care about it that much and have already became citizens of other countries. I feel that I couldn’t do it.
I have a Lithuanian passport and live in the U.S. with a green card permit. It allows you to live in a country but there are limitations. I cannot be in another country than the U.S. for longer than six months. So if I wanted to teach for a year in the Lithuanian Academy of Music, I couldn’t do it.
I don’t need an American passport right now but I might need it in the future. If I had kids, I could find a better school for them if I had a U.S. passport. I also cannot vote. I vote in the Lithuanian elections, I haven’t missed a single one. But I cannot vote in the U.S. election. If I had citizenship, I could participate more, especially in the city’s politics.
I cannot vote. If I had American citizenship, I could participate in the city’s politics.
There’s a conflict in me – if I love Lithuania so much, why don’t I live there? But I believe that I can participate in the Lithuanian community even if I am not there physically. I know that I am more productive when I live a global life, working with people from all over the world and presenting Lithuanian music in different countries. Before COVID, I played concerts in Australia and New Zealand and in different parts of the U.S. For many listeners, it was the first time they saw kanklės.
I see how important it is to teach the Lithuanian language for Lithuanian-American children. There’s a lot of them! Language schools are full. But how do you teach a child language? Music is one of the best ways to do that. I believe that learning the language is the key pillar in identifying as Lithuanian. And there aren’t that many people speaking Lithuanian in the world. So every one of them keeps the language alive. And if those kids will learn the language now, there’s more chance that they will go to Lithuania to study, invest money, teach.
I love being in New York and seeing all the different communities here. Like the Russian community in Brighton Beach or the Chinese community in Chinatown. I relate to this multi-ethnicity because that is my own story as well. My mother is Polish-Belarus and my father is a Russian-Jew.
New York is a city where the fact that you are from a different ethical community is an advantage. Having an accent is a bonus, as long as you articulate your thoughts well. I work as a piano teacher here. And the clients trust me. They associate people from Eastern Europe, who know the Russian music academy's ethos, with good discipline. They trust my work ethic. That I will show up and deliver what I promised.
I know why some people are scared about dual citizenship in Lithuania. They think that it opens the doors for Western ideas to reach Lithuania. They talk about LGBTQ issues, trans issues, gender pronouns – people see that as Western influences, they are afraid of that and they want it to stop. But the world is opening up anyway. We have the internet. Isolating our passports won’t help them.”
Gedas Ramanauskas, Lawyer, Senior Counsel at Tapestry, Inc. 6 Years in the U.S. Lives in New York City.
“I grew up in Vilnius and for almost 30 years I was living in Lithuania. But I met my partner in another country and we found a third country – the United States – to move in. I have a Lithuanian passport but in a year I will be able to apply for an American one.
It’s a strange situation. In my heart I am Lithuanian. I was born there, I grew up there, my family is there. But there will come a time when I’ll need to decide. I’m a lawyer at Fortune 500 company. There are no limitations at my work regarding citizenship. But my resident permit has an expiration date. Of course you can extend it, but the U.S. government has a right to deny that. If I was a U.S. citizen, no one could take that citizenship away.
Currently, I don’t see how I could neglect my Lithuanian citizenship and become an American citizen. Lithuanian passport is not just a document – it’s part of my identity. And when you live outside of Lithuania longer, you start to miss your friends, your family. And you want to give back to your country. I don’t feel less of a Lithuanian when I live in New York. But if Lithuania had a dual citizenship, I would apply for an American passport. That would make me feel safer.
It’s sad that the state is losing its citizens so easily.
The problem is that the rules of a referendum to change the constitution in Lithuania are very strict. You need to have more than 50% of people saying YES to the change. That is almost impossible knowing how many people come to elections in Lithuania. The referendum rules were written in 1992. The situation has changed since then. There’s a new, more global generation. Among those who voted outside of Lithuania, more than 90% said that they want dual citizenship. That means that the majority of the diaspora wants this to happen. Among Lithuanian-Americans there’s a lot of anger about this referendum rule.
Of course, some people are suspicious or jealous. They think: “Why can others have several citizenships when I have only one?” But they have to understand that getting citizenship of another country is a long, hard work. I was learning a lot, took different exams to get my lawyer’s qualifications. It’s not like you arrive in the country and get citizenship next day.
I think it’s short-sighted thinking of the state. Maybe in 50 years there will be only 2 million Lithuanians physically living in Lithuania. It’s sad that the state is losing its citizens so easily. And the fact that you lose citizenship automatically is just cruel. What if you have children in Lithuania? Or real-estate? If you are receiving a pension? You just get a letter that you are no longer a citizen. So many Lithuanians think: “OK, if you don’t need me, then I don't need you.” The current referendum rules just don’t apply to the reality.”